Undressing Feminism: Stripping as a Feminist Act

The pole was my favourite part. I liked all of the physical stuff, but pole dancing most of all. I liked looking down at my body, seven inches taller than usual, bathed in colour. There was a skill in the dance: showcasing the right angles, building the tension as the song climaxed. I felt powerful under the gaze, twisting it for my own sexual and economic benefit. I adored myself as this hyper-feminine alien—the Holy Other. Albeit controversial, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the attention. It felt right being naked in a room full of strangers. I felt free.

From a young age my mind has been fixated on sex. The night I discovered masturbation began a year-long endeavour to pleasure myself at least three times a day. I would sneak off to the school bathrooms at lunch and hold my hand over my mouth as girls walked in and out, talking about makeup or school sports. On the weekends of those months I would shower over and over, experimenting with water pressures and yelling at my sister, “I’ll be out in a minute.” In hindsight, regardless of whether my peers (or their parents) thought what I was doing was ‘dirty’, I was surely the cleanest kid at my school.

So for me, sex work was an inevitable career choice as I left high school and moved out of home. I was a writer, but I had no real experiences (sexual or otherwise) that I felt warranted being written down. I was a virgin, this incredibly sexually orientated virgin. At this point in time, I was just becoming educated on feminism, and I thought I was definitely a feminist too. How this realisation intersected with my new role as a stripper, I wasn’t sure. And if I’m being honest with myself, I was probably a little afraid to find out.

For how could sex work be a feminist endeavour? Prominent feminist writer and activist Kate Millet called it “a form of slave relations existing in the present.” Everything I’d read about feminism said that any form of power relations in which a woman is subordinate to a man is intrinsically wrong. As a young girl I learnt about the male gaze and I felt trapped beneath it, unable to fully realise my own agency, my own power. As an adult it was hard to distance myself from these views, despite the joy my new career gave me. They left me wondering whether I was really fucking with the patriarchy or just fucking it (symbolically, or course). This moral uncertainty turned my gumption into a slow, creeping feeling that everything I did or said would be quickly lost within this overarching system that said woman equals passive, looked at, and man equals active, looking. How could I fight back against this role when all the discourse I discovered functioned within this theoretical system? What at first felt empowering to me became just another form of systematic oppression I was subconsciously implicit in. So when I wrote about stripping I wrote plucky memoir; I steered clear of any analysis. I ignored anyone who told me that what I did with my own body was wrong. I called myself a sexual essentialist, and argued that sex was, and should be, beyond societal analysis.

Unfortunately for (past) me, essentialist theory negates the necessity of analysing how we perceive and portray sex within our society. As feminist and gender theorist Gayle Rubin explains, “Sexuality is impervious to political analysis as long as it is primarily conceived as a biological phenomenon or as an aspect of individual psychology.”  Analysis is important; how else do we look upon this world we live in and seek improvement, seek equality? So here I am; this is my analysis. In this essay I am speaking as someone who entered the sex industry willingly. I don’t aim to speak for women who enter the industry through coercion, poverty, or trafficking. I wanted to be there, although I couldn’t quite justify it at the time. The essentialist in me said that I shouldn’t have to. But this is less about justification, and more about exploration. I did find the tools I needed, albeit a little later. It was only after leaving the sex industry that I started discovering, and becoming heavily involved with, sex-positive discourse.

Writer Kelsey G explains that sex-positive feminism “centres upon the principle that sexual freedom is an essential component to women’s freedom; and thus, sex-positive feminists oppose both political and social efforts to control sexual activities between consenting adults”. This is a pretty clear-cut argument, and one that makes a lot of sense to me. Sex-positivity doesn’t have to be about portraying sexuality as ‘good’ or ‘positive’ no matter the circumstances, nor is it apolitical or concerned with forcing sexuality onto anyone who isn’t interested in it. For me, it is about the importance of agency, consent, and sexual freedom. Elena Jeffries, president of Scarlet Alliance (the Australian Sex Workers Association), applies sex-positive feminism to sex work, stating that “sex work is feminist—being sexually active, putting a value on your sexual interactions, negotiating boundaries and making informed choices about your body. Sex workers aren’t subscribing to prescriptive morals about chastity, nuclear family and monogamy—this is a feminist project, is it not?” My experience definitely correlated with this statement. The women I worked with were financially autonomous and sexually independent. Like any job, it could be tiring, and liberating, and frustrating, and funny. I won’t pretend it was some sort of lush utopia, but we enjoyed our work, and we practised it as sexually moral deviants, outside the boundaries of patriarchy.  How could other feminists not see the power of this profession?

For some, it must be easy to mistrust a group of people who engage in sex acts outside the contexts of romance or marriage, and where a woman gains financially (and otherwise) from the transaction. The kinds of sexual interactions that are ‘OK’, and ‘safe’, and ‘clean’, have been ingrained into use by our patriarchal (and religious) society since we took our first steps as children. Rubin explains that, “Western cultures generally consider sex to be a dangerous, destructive, negative force. Most Christian tradition, following Paul, holds that sex is inherently sinful. It may be redeemed if performed within marriage for procreative purposes and if the pleasurable aspects are not enjoyed too much…Such notions have by now acquired a life of their own and no longer depend solely on religion for their perseverance.”  So when we view sex work through this lens, one that is inherently against it, how can we, as a whole, come to terms with this industry as one that is inclusive and deserving of sex-positive feminist discourse? How can we break away from patriarchy if we analyse our actions through a discourse that is based around its ideas?

This is a difficult statement to make, as it is easy to assume that by looking ahead, we forget our history. Some of the biggest debates against sex-positive feminism are about whether it even acknowledges that under patriarchy, sexuality is woven with qualities of power, and often violence, at the expense of women as exploited objects. Distinguished feminist and political theorist Carole Pateman writes, “When women’s bodies are on sale as commodities in the capitalist market, the terms of the original contract (which is about men’s civil power) cannot be forgiven; the law of male sex-right is publicly affirmed, and men gain public acknowledgement as women’s sex masters.” To Pateman, this is inescapable. But G disputes this, arguing, “By stating that heterosexual sex is a male prerogative, Pateman is denying the existence of sexual pleasure for women, and therefore, categorizes them as non-sexual beings that are incapable of enjoying the sexual activity.” Pateman also makes a mistake by stating that sex work is a heterosexual act, dismissing the existence of homosexuality or gender and sex fluidity. G also argues Pateman’s analysis of sex work using a capitalist rhetoric ignores the simple economic theory of supply and demand. Put simply, the greater a product is in demand, the greater power its supplier contains over the consumer market. “It is the prostitute who sets the price of the commodity, manipulates the output of its product, and retains control over how their “goods” are to be handled and negotiated.”

So who has the right to describe a sex worker’s experience? Should the sex worker be the arbiter of whether or not they are being suppressed by their industry, or is an outside mediator important in determining whether their views are being manipulated by an overarching patriarchal system? It’s a difficult balance to maintain, especially when you’re debating someone’s personal experience. One of the biggest issues with the sex-negative, or sex-critical, debate is the infrequency with which sex workers are referenced in what is really their own conversation. This silencing of an integral voice plays right into the hands of the patriarchy. It’s only furthering the myth that all women who engage in sex acts outside contexts that are deemed ‘normal’ are silent victims to the men that exploit them, or whores. It’s only separating feminists, rather than uniting them. Political researcher Barbara Sullivan talks about this separation, stating, “The dichotomy between female prostitutes and non-prostitute women is a form of social control of female sexuality which makes the support of prostitutes by other women a matter of self-interest rather than moral imperative. This process of defining women as strictly asexual ‘good’ women and sexually active ‘bad women’ takes away a women’s right to be a sexually active and moral person.”

When we talk about any form of sexual relations between consenting adults, we should be wary of any unexperienced figure trying to take control of a) the way the majority views these relations, and b) the legislation that allows these relations to exist safely. Silencing the voice of the sex worker in their own conversation denies them their agency, and to deny someone their agency is to deny them their intelligence. Within the context of consensual sex work, and specifically stripping, it is important to view the power relations at play through the role of the sex worker, not just the patron. When we silence the sex worker, we view them through the framework of a patriarchal society. How can we move forward as an equal society if we discuss feminism through this framework? Kelsey G goes further, stating “the fact is, every woman holds a right to her own body, and any move to take away this freedom is itself an act of politicised anti-feminism.”

So I argue that sex work can be feminist, but that doesn’t mean the debate is over. I had many privileges in my time as a stripper: that I could enter the industry willingly, and my conformity to Western beauty standards. It is important to make this distinction in a world where the definitions of mainstream beauty include words like “white”, “skinny”, and “young.” As writer Katherine Frank states, “A feminist politics of stripping, if one can exist, needs to be aware that the power of beauty remains deeply entwined with class, age, and race hierarchies, and as a result, what is playful to one woman may be painful or impossible for another.” Image and beauty are commodities as a stripper, and it’s important that these aspects aren’t silenced for the benefit of sex-positive discourse. I shaved my body for the male gaze, and I didn’t want to.

I’ve mostly always been a hairy girl. Other than during that phase of high school where we’d run around, freshly shaved, crying “FEEL MY LEGS”, I’ve worn my hair long. Leg hair, pubic hair, underarm hair, my body is a jungle housing exotic species of flora, all of it grown full length. When they handed me the contract at my first stripping job, it included a small booklet of the club’s aesthetic guidelines. Looking back, it was a pretty accurate summary of Western essentialist beauty ideals. The white models pictured were aged between 20-26 years old. They showcased their baby-smooth shaved bodies in the positions acceptable for a safe lap dance. This juxtaposition between hyper-sexuality and pre-pubescence was concerning. Never wear your hair up, don’t cut it past your shoulders (oops). You must be tanned, it reflects the lights better. Dancers above a size twelve must wear babydoll lingerie that covers the stomach. These guidelines (or indeed any guidelines that prescribe how a woman ‘should’ look) were not conducive to my beliefs, and certainly not to my somewhat pungent, floral state.

But of course, I shaved it all off. As I watched the hairs float sadly down the drain I wondered what the effect of this removal was on my identification as a feminist. I felt I was performing a feminist act by enjoying my work, but the removal of my body hair left me itchy and uneasy. Dr Nina K Martin speaks of the dangers of selling “sexy female imagery—conveniently supportive of heterosexual male desires—to women through the rhetoric of female empowerment.”  I certainly didn’t feel empowered as I covered the skin above my pubic bone with wash-off fake tan to hide the razor rash. Martin asks, “Is choosing stripping necessarily a progressive move, especially if standards of beauty and sexiness remain unchanged?” I think it can be, as long as we acknowledge that there is still much work to be done.

Standards of beauty are not the only grievances in what is a very flawed industry, and these issues should not be sidelined for the benefit of sex-positive discourse. Sex-positivity shouldn’t be about silencing one half of the debate for a fantasy world where all sex is good sex, and the patriarchy has vanished because we closed our eyes to it. It is about respecting agency and consent: opening our minds to the idea of sex workers enjoying their role without being shamed as “slut” or “victim”, and the necessity of there being a safe environment for them to do so. Regardless of whether you identify with sex-positive, or sex-negative (or sex-critical) rhetoric, rather than marginalizing the other half of the debate, we should be approaching the issue of consensual sex work inclusive to the views of those involved, discussing the ways in which things can be improved, and taking actions to see those improvements become a reality. Referencing the people working within the industry is the key point here. In order to really free these women, we need to give them back their voices. Only then can they tell you they are already free.

Allie Speers is a Brisbane-based writer who focuses mainly on memoir with some casual lit criticism thrown in for good measure. Her favourite topics are sex, feminism, and the body.

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